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The Independent Critic

Paul Giamatti, Bobby Cannavale, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, Alex Shaffer
Thomas McCarthy
Joe Tiboni, Thomas McCarthy
Rated R
106 Mins.
Fox Searchlight
Deleted Scenes;
Tom McCarthy and Joe Tiboni discuss Win Win;
David Thompson at Sundance 2011;
Alex Shafer at Sundance 2011;
In Conversation with Tom McCarthy and Paul Giamatti at Sundance 2011;
Tom McCarthy;
Amy Ryan;
Fox Movie Channel Presents: Direct Effect Tom McCarthy;
"Think You Can Wait" Music Video by The National;
Theatrical Trailer

 "Win Win" Review 
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Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a smalltown attorney and high school wrestling coach with a struggling law practice, piling up bills and a wrestling team that hasn't one a match all year. When Mike discovers that one of his retirement community bound clients (Burt Young) has a substantial enough bank account to produce a decent monthly paycheck if Mike becomes his guardian, Mike makes a questionable business decision that will come back to haunt him. Everything goes smoothly until one day when Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up at what used to be the doorstep of his grandfather's home, having moved out of his mother's (Melanie Lynskey) home while she's in rehab.

Kyle ends up being a star wrestler and, suddenly, Mike's entire world starts to turn least until mom shows up fresh from rehab and throws a kink in everyone's plans.

Co-written and directed by Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor), Win Win is likely McCarthy's most accessible film to date and arguably his greatest chance for success at the American box-office despite the film's overt quirkiness that sort of blends Little Miss Sunshine with each of McCarthy's first two films. Win Win, which McCarthy wrote with a childhood buddy, isn't a particularly original story but it is a beautifully scripted, authentically realized one.

It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how many similar characters Giamatti plays, he manages to bring each one to life in remarkably unique and wondrous ways. So few actors would have been capable of portraying the fullness of Mike Flaherty, a man who virtually always does the right thing but crosses his own moral line when his family's welfare is at stake. Giamatti's Flaherty is quiet, unassuming, complex, sweet, funny, a bit devious and even a touch sad. While the film itself occasionally falls short and McCarthy is better at creating story than image, Giamatti hits a home run with his performance here.

Newcomer Alex Shaffer, a real life 2010 New Jersey high school wrestling champ, is sort of a cross between early Sean Penn and your average stoner from one of Gus Van Sant's experimental journey films. Shaffer at times exudes such a quiet simmer that Win Win starts to feel like mainstream mumblecore. Shaffer's frequently edgy meltdowns don't feel like acting, but rather they ache with a real life desperation that is surprisingly uncomfortable.

Win Win's emotional core comes from Amy Ryan's charged and inspired performance as Flaherty's wife, a woman who at times seems completely self-centered and other times is the kind of wife and mother that deserves her own Hallmark card. Character actor Bobby Cannavale is a delight as one of Flaherty's old buddies, a recently divorced young man prone to stalking his ex but who finds escape in becoming an assistant coach and working with a young man who amounts to a muse for nearly everyone in his circle. Jeffrey Tambor has quite a few solid comic moments as Flaherty's office mate and assistant coach, while Melanie Lynskey does Marisa Tomei lite as Kyle's mother. Youngster Clare Foley, as Mike's daughter, is both sweet and effectively sympathetic.

There are a few moments in Win Win, a few choices really, that keep the film from really being an A-range film.  For example, repeated references are made to the burgeoning closeness between Kyle and Abby (Foley) yet almost never are these scenes actually shown. In merely suggesting that Kyle and Abby are bonding and remarking that they've gone down to the basement, McCarthy plants a touch of creepiness rather than the intended innocence to the scenario. It's little choices like this one, or the fact that Kyle needs to be smacked hard before a match in order to effectively produce, that are played out too quickly and without enough exposition to become truly impactful scenes.

Despite having minor reservations about Win Win, the film itself remains one of this critic's early faves in 2011 and it contains enough heart and humor to please virtually anyone who can appreciate a heartfelt human drama that is beautifully written and marvelously acted. Largely a staple on the indie theatrical circuit, Win Win is a surefire winner if it arrives at a theater near you.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic